by Jennifer Earle Strickland
Distinguished gentleman; scholar; and retired Buffalo Public School’s administrator, Lum Smith, sits among the leading historians of Buffalo history, and surely among the top 2 or 3 in knowledge of WNY’s Black History.
His rise to this prominent position has its foundation during his
time as a teacher when he recognized that students and colleagues lacked knowledge about African American history. He traveled to different schools and saw, first-hand, the necessity for the “infusion of Black History”, says Mr. Smith. He also recognized the need to invalidate many misconceptions and historical perspectives that had been believed as truths, but were, in fact, misrepresented, underrepresented, or just lost or stolen from our history.
These illuminations and revelations ignited him to begin researching materials at the Historical Society and the Central Library. He also sat with families and friends, and through engaging conversations, gathered information that would soon become part of his collection of priceless memoirs and moments of our history. His drive and diligence to educate staff, students, and the community on the significance of the inclusion of African American History into the various elements of its culture, with particular focus on the academic component, propelled him to do all that he could to ‘make IT happen’. “During the 10 years that I worked with the (BPS) School Integration Department, I did presentations, each day, at a different school,” Mr. Smith humbly remembers.
Many of Smith’s vast collection of keepsakes reflect on the Golden Era of Buffalo’s African American community which Smith believes had its height during the 1940s – 1960s. According to Smith, during World War II, when men and women, regardless of race consideration, were called to arms, and into the ‘50s and 60s’, Buffalo’s black men and women became employed at higher rates than ever before. Black students were graduating from high school and college at increased rates, and black-owned businesses flourished in the community.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made available jobs in industries such as steel, auto manufacturing, and government operations, including the United States Post Office, while the Act also lessened the impact of the northern states’ covertly administered Jim Crow Laws that allowed for legal segregation in the southern states. The Era marked the rise of Buffalo’s entertainment complexes such as Michigan St.’s, The Little Harlem Hotel and William St.’s, the Moonglow, and Jefferson Ave.’s Pine Grill, while administrators and teachers; attorneys, doctors, and politicians, including Buffalo’s first African American official elected to city-wide office, Delmar Mitchell, were among the multitude of people of color and places that were significant to the multi-sector cultural enrichment triggered by this era of black empowerment.
Smith believes that the influx of “big business, including large supermarkets and department stores, drained a lot of businesses in the black community. Eventually (these enterprises), in the 1970s, and ‘white flight’ moved many businesses to malls and the suburbs. Blacks, as a result, had to find their goods downtown and away from the city.”
Today, about 40 years after Smith began to research and chronicle WNY’s history, his belief is that education of the entire community through special events focused on the African American history perspective and depicted by pictures and eyewitness accounts, should be consistently and continually presented in schools, and cultural institutions. “It would be an asset to students, teachers, adults of all ethnic groups, and races,” says Smith.
He supports that churches could be valuable resources for improving our community and that all schools should be open evenings and Saturdays, with appropriate programs, and encourages colleges and universities to become more active in the African American community. Smith’s photos of athletes, entertainers, politicians, events, and even of the once beautiful Humboldt Parkway, before the ‘great divide’ of the Kensington (now Martin Luther King, Jr.) Expressway, grace his array of memorabilia that also includes articles, and other items that tell the stories of African Americans’ existence and impact in Western New York.
He continues to share his wealth of knowledge and priceless articles at the request of schools, churches, the Y.M.C.A., and social groups. Contact Lum Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org, for more information.
Peace and Love!